Today In Fact, 19 April

Outboard motors and philosophy. My father made his living by selling insurance. It was a special kind of insurance, the kind that second hand car salesmen sell you when you buy that pre-loved car. His method was to get to know the second hand car dealers very well, to have what approaches a relationship with them and then to get them to sell insurance on vehicles that would probably not break-down within the two or three years that the insurance covered.

In the early 1980’s he was in conversation with one of these salesmen and he noticed that they were also selling outboard motors. He wondered whether the outboard motors needed insurance against mechanical breakdown. “Oh no” he was told, “outboard motors never breakdown in the first two years of use”. This was how Africa’s first insurance policy against mechanical breakdown in the first two years was formed.

In the many years that my father sold the policies, not a single claim was ever made. He had Ole Evinrude to thank for his great invention of the outboard motor. Born today in 1877, this Norwegian came to the USA with his family and one day while rowing across a lake in Milwaukee to get Bess, his sweetheart and future wife an ice-cream, he struck on an idea for the outboard motor. He employed a few guys including a chap called Davidson and came out with the first outboard motor in 1907. Davidson later met-up with another mechanic called Harley.

What strikes me today about my father’s outboard motor business and Ole Evinrude’s invention of the outboard motor itself is its pragmatism. There was in these actions, no grand design, no deduction from first principles but rather a fallible working-out-as-one-goes-along sort of logic.

I like this sort of philosophy as it is really recommends truth as successful action. This philosophy was developed and named by Charles Sanders Peirce, the American scientist who founded, with others, the Philosophical school of Pragmatism. Peirce also founded the semiotics, the theory of language as signs and made many other contributions to science, mathematics and logic. Peirce , who died today in 1914 would have been proud I think of Evinrude and might even have liked my father.

Doug Racionzer (a full archive of these informative daily musings can be found at http://serendipiday.blogspot.com/).